≡ Menu

Your Customer as Yourself

While my professional past includes many cool startup clients from long, long ago (remember MP3.com?) much of my early career was heavily focused on automotive clients. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Lexus on what became their “Customer as Your Guest” approach to customer service — during the sales process and beyond. The concept was simple: treat your customer as you would a guest in your home. Take care of them. Listen to them. Anticipate what they might need. Make them feel comfortable. Make them feel at home.

Aside from car quality, safety and performance features, this “Customer as Your Guest” philosophy truly set a standard in excellence in the auto industry. The experience of buying a car was elevated. The way you were treated was just as legendary as the car you were buying. JD Power surveys raved about this approach. Consumer Reports consumers were thrilled. Every other car manufacturer quickly jumped on the “we care about our customers” bandwagon and I spent the next several years working on similar programs for top luxury car brands. The level of customer care during the sales process and during service appointments was elevated in a way it never had been before. It led to more car sales, more repeat customers (the holy grail!) and customers so happy they told everyone they knew about it and referred even more business to the dealership that “really took care of us.”

This idea is not revolutionary. But companies who make it their business to be that gracious to customers are revolutionary, even in today’s all-transparent, a-customer-can-complain-publicly-about-you-at-any-time world. Why is truly great customer service still so awe-inspiring when I was working on those programs nearly 20 years ago? Because so many companies don’t care. And it appalls me.

I’ve recently had several brilliant and shockingly awful customer service experiences in a very compressed time frame. I’ve been turning these experiences over in my mind and I’d like to share each of them with you over the next few weeks. The net result of these experiences — in such stark contrast to each other — has made me revisit the Lexus ‘Customer as Your Guest” program and wonder if even that is not enough. I’m convinced we’d be treated better as customers — and that companies would have a much greater chance of thriving — if they treated every customer the way they would expect to be treated themselves.

Do you treat your clients the way you want to be treated as a client? Do you deliver the exact same kind of service you expect of others? We’re all human (and I have many deliverables owed to many gracious clients…off  I go…) and make mistakes, but I think there’s something here that’s worth exploring. Hence, the Customer as Yourself moniker and nascent series.

Too lofty an ideal for today’s customer service woes? I don’t think so. When I think of the brands, organizations (and frankly, people) I’m most loyal to, it’s in large part not because of their products but because of their service. It’s because they care about me. It’s because they care about Excellence.

I hope you’ll join me as I explore this in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

{ 0 comments }

Female Founders & Funding the Ratio

I’ve spent the last few months thinking rather seriously about the types of companies I’d like work with indefinitely and the kind of work I hope is included in whatever legacy I leave (as intense as that sounds this early in life, don’t we all think about this a bit?) and there’s a through-line in much of my thinking: companies that make a profound difference in our lives, our community, our planet (see header) and start-ups founded by women.

I’ve been buried with work for the better part of two years and other than long days of conference calls, strategy meetings and travel to/from those meetings and calls, I’ve been a bit of a hermit. As I climb out of my heads-down-let’s-work-like-crazy cave, I’m seeking out some great places to meet female founders and talk on a deeper level with women entrepreneurs and the many angels and VC’s who fund their endeavors.

I’ve been following several groups for awhile now and will be tip-toeing into a more meaningful (read: actually going to events and putting my words to action) dialogue with each of them.

Some great groups to check out if you are just as passionate about supporting women entrepreneurs or becoming one:

  • Women 2.0 – “Our mission is to increase the number of female founders of technology startups. Women 2.0 enables entrepreneurs with a network, resources and knowledge to take your startup from idea to launch.”
  • Girls in Tech – “An organization focused on women’s innovative and entrepreneurial achievements in technology.”
  • The Pipeline Fund – “The Pipeline Fellowship trains women philanthropists to become angel investors through education, mentoring, and practice.  Fellows commit to invest in a woman-led for-profit social venture in exchange for equity and a board seat at the end of the training.  The Pipeline Fellowship aims to diversify the investor pool and connect women social entrepreneurs with investors who get them.”

I wrote this top bit on Monday morning and planned to blog it later this week. Hours later, I declared aloud to a group of colleagues that I’m increasingly interested in becoming an angel investor at some point in the near future. Hours after that, I see Dave McClure on Twitter asking women who complain about the lack of female entrepreneurs to either become one or invest in one. I agreed and offered that instead of focusing so much on #changetheratio we might want to fund the ratio. That was followed by a flurry of great intros and DMs and emails that continued well into the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

These things did not happen in succession on Monday by accident. Call it a sign, call it whatever you want.  Something is up and I’ve got to follow this thread where it takes me. I’ll be exploring it all in the weeks and months ahead. Stay tuned.


{ 0 comments }

Listening

There’s a lot of praise heaped upon those who talk, talk, talk. The louder the better. I’ve seen my clients fall into a similar trap. If we’re just louder (first or last no matter, let’s just be LOUDER) and in more places saying more things and making the most amount of noise we can: we. will. win.

But there’s another, smarter way to play: listen.

Listen to your customers, your investors, your advisors, your competitors, your own innate sense of where your company should be now given all the places you’d like it to go. Notice how that sense of where to go is altered by all that you hear when you listen, listen, listen.

I’m working with several teams on how to listen and what to listen to before we even begin to think about action.

{ 0 comments }

Beyond the Pond

I’ve been thinking a lot about the many insular little worlds that exist in business and what expertise is required to excel vs. what willingness to look beyond is vital to success. There are so many nuances within industries that must be understood at a fundamental level to really get things right. Whether it’s pharma or the auto industry, apparel or publishing, knowledge of all that came before and deep relationships can be the key to winning.

Getting too comfortable with institutional knowledge, however, can be dangerous.

Over the past year and particularly in the past few months, I’ve seen an ugly side to this depth in industry. This knowledge of your niche and only your niche.

It can become so insular and self-congratulatory, so back-slappy and myopic that no real progress can be made. I’ve seen many talented teams puff up about their accomplishments with no sense of context. It is easy to be the winner in a pond of three. Easy to think you know it all when the only others you’re learning from are your equally puffed-up peers. Easy to believe you’ve “won” when the awards are handed out by those groping in the dark right along with you.

There is much to be gained in looking outward, beyond the pond.

Though I work across a dizzying range of clients in vastly different industries, I am also susceptible to niche thinking. So: I’m making it my mission these days to broaden and expand my experiences – both personal and professional – to ensure that I’m continually able to see things from a different perspective and apply that new insight in ways that elevate the known, creating something entirely new.

Over the next few months, I’ll share my “beyond the pond” experiences here. They may be wildly enlightening, they may be hardly worth your (and even my) time. Here’s to shaking things up a bit.

{ 0 comments }

Every Day is Championship Sunday

49er Fans: Love Hurts

My beloved 49ers, terrible for so many dark years, made it to the NFC Championship game on Sunday and they lost.

One way to sum up the game: It was close. It was cruel. It is over. They will not advance to the Super Bowl. The dream has been denied.

Another way to look at it: This is why we watch football…for all that can go right or go wrong in a single moment. This loss will make every future win that much sweeter. This loss does not undo an entire season of wins. This loss does not take the shine off the magic that was the Saints game last week that will live in my memory – and so many others’ – for as long as I’m alive. This loss does not replace the pure joy it was to watch them in action all season.

We showed up to the dance and we didn’t clinch it all. But do you know what it takes to show up to the dance every day, every week, every game, every Championship Sunday? Sometimes we fall short, but I promise you the 49ers did not get to Sunday without working their asses off as a team and focusing on excellence, excellence, excellence. They did not get there by thinking they would fall short. They did not get there by letting the doubters get in their heads.

Imagine if every business, every company and every leader played each day like Championship Sunday? For every product you ship, for every line of code you perfect, for every campaign that is a huge success, for every customer you truly take care of…you show up to the dance and play like you’re in it to win it.

What will the 49ers do now? Be excellent in figuring out how they could have done better, what they didn’t correctly assess, what they could have anticipated, what they should have prevented. They will be excellent in figuring out how they could have been more excellent. Same as Plancast’s Mark Hendrickson in his brave post-mortem about how a business is built and the value of asking the hard questions when you don’t win.

Win or lose, it is the pursuit of something larger than ourselves. Win or lose, it is the thrill of the game – whether your game is football or startups or health care reform or getting clean water to all.

Winning is sweet. Losing and showing up to the dance again and again asking “how can we be more excellent” questions along the way? Equally sweet (though not at first blush) and perhaps more poignant.

Let’s be those companies. Let’s be those teams. Let’s be those leaders. Every day. Game. On.

Image shared by @DarrenRovell

{ 0 comments }

Excellence

I have a thing about excellence. After many years working with many teams to launch businesses, build businesses, market businesses and sell businesses, I’ve come to realize something very important about myself that will color all future business decisions I make: I require excellence. In myself. In others. In the teams I work with.

That is not to say that I always achieve excellence. On most days, I don’t. But the pursuit of doing excellent work is always pushing me forward. I want to do incredible work with incredible people. I want that work to matter and I’m happy to work extremely hard for the privilege. What I’ve learned this past year is that I’m no longer willing to do so-so work and I’m not willing to work with teams who feel so-so is good enough.

Though I strive for the all holy “balance” that so many seek and though I know the most important things in life aren’t business, I find that again and again I’ve resisted saying this aloud because it makes me seem difficult, or exacting or worse…but I truly cannot stand to work with people who aren’t in it to do the best work they can possibly do.

Late last year, I read The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh, former GM and Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers. I was not looking for a book on management or leadership or excellence. I was hoping to get a glimpse inside a football organization I’ve loved since the very first time I attended one of their games as a little girl. Imagine, then, my surprise to find that after a few short chapters, I felt redeemed for my intense insistence on excellence. Finally, I thought. Someone gets me. I’m not crazy for wanting everyone to level up. For pushing myself so hard to deliver at the highest level I possibly can. For getting frustrated when those around me are content to deliver “just enough.” For wondering how I swiftly become the least popular person in a room when I feel we’re not playing at the level we should be.

A few key quotes demonstrate Walsh’s “Standard of Performance” and his desire to create an “Environment of Excellence”:

“I implemented what I call the Standard of Performance. It was a way of doing things, a leadership philosophy that has as much to do with core values, principles, and ideals as with blocking, tackling, and passing; more to do with the mental than the physical. While I prized preparation, planning, precision, and poise, I also knew that organizational ethics were crucial to ultimate and ongoing success.

It began with this fundamental leadership assertion: Regardless of your specific job, it is vital to our team that you do that job at the highest possible level in all its various aspects, both mental and physical (i.e., good talent with bad attitude equals bad talent.)

In a way, an organization is like an automobile assembly line; it must be first class or the cars that come off it will be second rate. The exceptional assembly line comes first, before the quality car. My Standard of Performance was establishing a better and better ‘assembly line.’

Within our organization the Standard of Performance served as a compass that pointed to true north. It embraced the individual requirements and expectations–benchmarks–required of our personnel in all areas regardless of whether things were going well or badly. That’s the toughest thing–constancy amid chaos or presumed perfection.”

I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on this topic for so long (should I really write a post about this? won’t it seem goody two-shoes? will my clients roll their eyes for the times when I clearly wasn’t excellent? will the teams know I’m talking about them?) that I had set the matter aside entirely a few months ago. Lesson learned internally. No need to share it with the world, etc. Until I read Seth Godin’s “Chance of a Lifetime” post on the very last day of 2011, which ended like this:

“You get to make a choice. You can remake that choice every day, in fact. It’s never too late to choose optimism, to choose action, to choose excellence. The best thing is that it only takes a moment — just one second — to decide.

Before you finish this paragraph, you have the power to change everything that’s to come. And you can do that by asking yourself (and your colleagues) the one question that every organization and every individual needs to ask today: Why not be great?

To which I thought: Exactly. Why the hell not?

Now. I don’t mean to conflate working hard with working smart. I’m not advocating excellence in 80 hours a week when 50 (or 40 or 30) gets it done just as well. I’m simply making a choice this year to own my need to work with clients and teams and staff who care just as much about doing great work as I do. Not in theory. Not in fancy words in a flashy Prezi that never gets implemented beyond the conference room in which it was presented. I’m talking about in practice. Every day. Trying every moment to do the best work we can possibly do. Who’s with me?

{ 4 comments }

We Can Win If…

From The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh, storied GM and Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers:

“The great leaders in sports, business, and life always have the most powerful and positive inner voice talking to them, which they, in turn, share with and teach to their organization. The specifics of that inner voice varies from leader to leader, but I believe all have these four messages in common:

  1. We can win if we work smart enough and hard enough.
  2. We can win if we put the good of the group ahead of our own personal interests.
  3. We can win if we improve. And there’s always room for improvement.
  4. I know what is required for us to win. I will show you what it is.”

That last bit? About knowing what is required to win? The most elusive quality to find in a leader.

{ 0 comments }

90 Degrees

I’ve been thinking about integrity lately. About doing what you say you will do. About follow-through. About what that means not just for us as individuals but what it means for companies and how they interact with their customers. When you add integrity to the oft-bandied-about concept of “360 degree” or “user-centric” marketing, you start to get at something that resembles practicing what you preach, walking the walk, doing rather than talking about doing. Being for your customers what you implicitly promised you would be.

If you decide to blog, you should be ready for every kind of comment. If you Tweet, you should be able to handle what comes back your way. If you enter a singing competition, send your short story out to a journal, audition for a part in your favorite play – you are actively engaging in all that comes after: the yes or the no, the rejection or not. All the greys in between.

Since creative individuals put themselves through this all the time in the hopes of getting to do what they love, it makes me crazy when seemingly great companies can’t stand the heat, though they turned on the oven and got in it. Many companies don’t fully embrace the “conversation” (a buzz word that annoys me a great deal but is accurate and so…there you go) they started and are practicing what could at best be called “90 degree” marketing. Two examples:

  • Napa Wineries – I recently spent several days in Napa and I made a point to tweet about my visits. Of a dozen wineries I mentioned while in Napa, only two responded. Bravo to Cornerstone Cellars & CADE who extended my positive experience by engaging with me further. If I was sold on their wines before, I’m now doubly sold on them as companies that care about their customers. I feel I have a connection to them now in a way I don’t have with, say, Larkmead. I’ve been a Larkmead member for a long time. That means I’ve spent a ton of money on their wine for the past several years. It also means that when I visit their winery, I get VIP treatment. Lovely, right? Sure. But I tweeted about that lovely treatment and I’ve heard not a word. Well perhaps they are busy? Not active on Twitter? you might think. There’s the rub – they actively tweet every day. But they never respond to a single customer. Check their stream. Check their @ replies. Nada. What kind of message does that send to me? You have time to market yourselves but not to talk with a very good customer? I’d rather you not be on Twitter at all vs. being there actively ignoring me. Talking at me vs. with me is 90 degree marketing at its finest.
  • 49ers – If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m a 49er fan. Have been since I was very young and though we’ve had some bleak (b-l-e-a-k) years, this season is off to a great start. When clients ask me about brands “doing it right” in social media, I often think of the 49ers because they do a brilliant job of bringing their fans along for the ride of every game and give special access to locker room video, player interviews and special photos that traditional sports media can’t provide, especially mid week when the next game seems miles away. To follow the @49er stream is to be on the “inside” of a team you love. Their social media group continually surprises me with what they share and how often they share it – I’m convinced they are putting a solid amount of thought and care into delighting their fans. It shows. But guess what? They never respond either. Check their feed. All one way communication, megaphone style. Not a single @ reply (except for the failure to add a “.” before using a player’s handle to indicate a recent score, etc.) Can you imagine how the delight if fans actually got replies? I know it’s a bit more challenging since “@49ers” is used to refer to the team without intending to engage those manning the Twitter stream, but you can’t invite your fans to the coolest of parties and then ignore them once they arrive.

These are just two examples from the past week. There are dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of similar experiences to be had from many seemingly great brands and I’m certain I’m not alone in this.  It may be a stretch to link integrity with a fully integrated marketing approach and point “you  have no integrity” fingers at companies that don’t tweet back. But I do think that in an age of so much talking and so little doing, it is about integrity. If you don’t want to respond to customer questions on Twitter, don’t be on Twitter. If you don’t want to engage with your fans, don’t tell them you do.

I can already hear the rally cries of the social media teams who have hard data and compelling reasons why they simply can’t get the resources to handle every response (understood, depending on the company this task can be Herculean) or who are in a heavily regulated industry (been there, I get it) or have taken the decision to simply delight & inspire with content vs. dialogue. But when you see companies oh so large and oh so small doing it well (next week, I’ll share some of those), it seems to me you can’t get by on a 90 degree plan for much longer.

{ 0 comments }

Alignment

As I talk with more and more people who have “survived” their many years in the agency world, I’m constantly reminded of why we view it as having survived – it wasn’t in alignment with what we wanted for our lives. I loved the work I did and I often loved the people I did it with, but I had no control over which clients I could take on and which ones I could turn away. When you work 80+ hours a week to help brands and products that are not in line with your personal passions (or are, in fact, in direct opposition to them), you quickly lose the joy for work, the joy for life.

I eventually left agency life to start my own boutique firm and found that though I worked far more than 80+ hours a week (and often do still), the ability to choose work that aligns with my particular worldview and work with clients that I believe in 100% has made all the difference. Instead of leading separate lives where I’m one way at work and one way at home, one way in social media (my clients are watching!) and one way after-hours, I have found that all the angst around finding that balance was worth it – I can finally be me everywhere I go. That sounds so simple, but it is so powerful and bears repeating: I can finally be me wherever I go. Online or off.

Two recent items of note that reinforced this concept of alignment for me:

“So if lack of fulfillment is the major culprit that leads to the very real pressure we mistakenly attribute to work-life balance, then what is the answer? In other words, if it’s not a question of ‘balance’, then what is it? How do we obtain this elusive fulfillment from our work and life in general?

The answer is alignment. It’s about aligning what you do for a living more closely with who you are as a person (meaning your strengths, preferences and goals). It’s about aligning your work with what you’ve been put on earth to do…”

  • Amy Jo Martin of Digital Royalty recently asked an extremely pertinent question on Twitter“Is there a difference between the professional you and the personal you? If so, why?” For so many years, my answer to this was a resounding “yes.” Why? Because the professional me was divorced entirely from the personal me. My work in no way reflected what I believed in, what I cared about, the difference I wanted to make in this world. My answer now is a delicious “no” because I found a way to organize my life so I get to be me wherever I go, online or off. I get to do work I care about, work I believe is changing the world and I don’t have to hide that from anyone.

I know how lucky I am that I’ve been able to make this transition. It wasn’t easy. And I wasn’t able to make a perfectly clean, storybook kind of break from agency life. I left and went back. I left and went back. Then I left again. It was scary. There were very lean months and I’m sure there will be again. But I cannot fully express what it’s like to replace that sick-to-your-stomach on a Sunday night feeling with…excitement for what Monday will bring. This is something I heard people talk of and simply assumed they were all being their fake professional selves when they said it. Who is excited about Monday? Ever? Turns out, I am. Often. All because of alignment.

{ 2 comments }

Follow the Shade

On a recent long run in downtown Los Angeles, I found myself playing a familiar game: follow the shade. There is little of it downtown, and most of it is created only by the shadows buildings create when the sun is just right. So it’s a tricky game, this following of the shade. Most often, bands of shade are not connected so I run in the shadow of a fence, only to be thrust back into the blazing sun for a mile or two before picking up the trail of another band of shade cast by a block of trees. And on and on. Repeat the shade-seeking.

This game is both practical and psychological. It allows me to stay cooler so I run longer and it keeps my mind busy with a challenging puzzle on a difficult run. In short: following the shade is extremely useful in helping me get to the next level of my training.

I often think in business – whether it’s innovation or being a great leader or simply delivering your standard service well – it is easy to think of following the shade as cheating. As a shortcut. The age-old belief that artists must suffer for their art comes to mind. I disagree.

After years of working with big brands, I now work exclusively with start-ups, where resources are limited and time is nearly always against you. With only months to prove viability or get a much-needed round of funding, following the shade is not only a smart strategy, it could mean the difference between a company that makes it and one that doesn’t. Instead of wasting all your time and capital developing everything from scratch, how can you tap into your special sauce, the thing only you and your team can build, and take advantage of the shade when you can? If using a code base that already exists (following the shade) or a distribution model that has worked before (following the shade) or an outside expert resource that has all the right connections for your unique product (following the shade) means you get to market faster, cleaner or leaner…you must follow the shade.

It’s also a useful strategy when training for marathons in a city with few trees and very high temps. Whatever gets you to that starting line with minimal injury and boundless energy, ready to give it everything you have. Even better? You can even follow the shade during the 26.2 miles so you’re ready for the next one. And the next one.

{ 0 comments }